IT Is a Baby Boomer
By John Parkinson
IBM turned 100 years old this month. Many workers in the industry that it helped spawn (and that nearly killed it over a decade ago) are already eligible for AARP membership, and have begun approaching early retirement age (depending on how you count, and how lucky you are).
For some years now, industry observers have been asking whether the technology sector is "mature." By this, they often mean: Are triple-digit growth rates and investment returns still possible? Or, do hardware and software increasingly have the economics of automobiles or frozen carrots? Does IT matter anymore when everyone has access to the same set of business automation technologies and all the common business problems can be solved?
My take on the questions of maturity is slightly different.
Let's begin by looking at the core characteristic of information technology (and most other classes of technology) over its first 50 years. This would span from newborn through adolescence and past middle age. For much of this period, IT was scarce. As a result, all things related to IT commanded a price premium. Now that the technologies of computing and communication are plentiful and widely deployed, buyers have the luxury of (seemingly too much) choice along with continuing downward price pressure. The plummeting price of a new PC or smartphone is a good proxy for an entire class of fixed and mobile technologies, inside and outside the enterprise.
Given the plentitude of technologies, the ubiquity of mobility, and the opportunity for extended enterprise data communications, the uses to which IT is put are diverging from the efficiency-driven automation of internal business processes.
Optimizing along a value chain (or, increasingly across a value web) that includes billions of consumers is a very different data and computational problem than connecting internally optimized processes within a business or between different companies. It also raises entirely different managerial, socio-cultural and political challenges. The operating assumptions and design principles of a connected, mobile environment revolve around these key areas:
- standards, availability and reliability more than traditional areas of technical differentiation
- blended, on-demand services on an increasingly virtual network more than discrete applications on a physical processor
- quality of experience and "at any time" support for quick, accurate decisions rather more than quantity of throughput
Think: Mashups rather than MIPs; Pandora Radio rather than Payroll; Google rather than General Ledger. These will shape what comes next. The forcing functions for innovation are no longer buried in corporate IT departments or the software labs of industry incumbents.
In short, rather than leaving some golden middle age of economic alchemy - of turning silicon into gold, as it were - a vastly expanded IT industry now attempts to address a broad and generally educated base of customers (or at least those with well-trained expectations, no matter how unrealistic), who are competing for the highest possible stakes with ever more powerful and flexible technologies.
The "next age" of IT history promises to be dramatic. Given new possibilities in biology, education, politics, and transportation, it's impossibly premature to write off the information technology market as a locus for growth and radical innovation. We haven't yet done everything we could with what we already have, and the overall pace of innovation isn't slowing much, even if the shape of innovation is changing.
Thanks for the past 100 years, IBM (and all the others that contributed to the journey, whether or not they made it all the way). Are you ready for the next 100? I know I am. About the Author John Parkinson is the head of the Global Program Management Office at AXIS Capital. He has been a technology executive, strategist, consultant and author for 25 years.